Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

Hain 'amnesty' call condemned

Peter Hain says ending Troubles prosecutions may bring closure to victims

Victims of Northern Ireland's armed conflict have strongly criticised Peter Hain after he called for an end to prosecutions for crimes committed before the Good Friday peace agreement.

No-one would be pursued for 3,000 unsolved murders during decades of trouble before the 1998 accord, under his proposal.

Britain's former Northern Ireland Secretary suggested a special judicial process whereby cases would come before a judge and those felt to be responsible could ask for the matter to be considered and then be released on licence.

It would be "even handed", applying to soldiers like those who carried out the Bloody Sunday killing of unarmed civilians in Derry in 1972 as well as former republican and loyalist paramilitaries, Mr Hain said.

However justice campaigners branded his comments "grossly offensive".

Mr Hain said: "What is certain about the current situation is that victims won't get closure or justice in the vast majority of these cases because the evidence is often impossible to establish as the events happened too long ago."

The Neath MP said it was not a matter for the British Government but had to be addressed by leaders of Northern Ireland's devolved assembly.

The senior Labour figure said he had every sympathy with victims.

But he added: "Northern Ireland can stay trapped in its past of horror, with its eyes constantly looking over its shoulders, allowing the past to stalk it, or looking forward to the future."

The UK Prime Minister has said he does not support the idea of amnesties.

Michael Gallagher lost his son Aidan during the dissident Real IRA's Omagh bomb which killed 31 people shortly after the agreement; his brother Hugh was killed by the IRA in 1984.

He said: "People who carried out horrendous crimes over a 40-year period should not be allowed to escape justice.

"We don't know what advances there will be in forensic science, sometimes people's loyalties change over time and people can be brought before the courts."

The former Northern Ireland Secretary was speaking before the start of the first state visit to Britain by President Michael D Higgins. He was Northern Ireland Secretary from 2005 to 2007.

He said: "I think there should be an end to all conflict-related prosecutions. That should apply to cases pre-dating the Good Friday Agreement in 1998."

Under the agreement anybody convicted of paramilitary crimes was eligible for early release. It was one of the most controversial aspects of the blueprint, which was endorsed in referendums by people in Northern Ireland and the Republic.

The provision did not cover those suspected of committing crimes during the troubles nor those who were charged or convicted but had escaped from prison.

It emerged during the trial of John Downey, accused of murdering four soldiers during the Hyde Park bombing in 1982, that almost 200 Irish republicans who believed they may be on the run from justice had received letters of assurance that they were not wanted by detectives for crimes committed before 1998.

They did not rule out prosecutions if more evidence later emerged but angered unionists who branded the administrative scheme an amnesty.

Mr Hain's Labour Government was in power when many messages were delivered.

Downing Street has ordered a review, chaired by Lady Justice Hallett, into the scheme.

John Larkin, Northern Ireland attorney general, has suggested an end to troubles prosecutions, police investigations, inquests or inquiries involving paramilitaries, police officers and soldiers.

Patrick Corrigan, Northern Ireland director at Amnesty International, said: "It is regrettable that senior political figures continue to show such disregard for one of the abiding lessons of conflict resolution: one cannot build a stable peace on a rocky foundation of injustice."

Arlene Foster, a member of Northern Ireland's largest unionist party, the Democratic Unionists, added: "The DUP will always stand by the principle that everyone should be equal under the law and equally subject to the law."

Kenny Donaldson, who represents a large victims' group in Northern Ireland, said: "It is grossly offensive to all those families who have to date been denied justice and truth."

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